Alexandra Kleeman’s second novel, Something New under the Sun, begins as a classic writer-goes-to-Hollywood story. The writer is Patrick Hamlin, a forty-something with two novels and an ‘epic novella’ to his name. He’s not as successful as he thinks he should be (but his books sound turgid and dreary). His wife, Alison, has become so preoccupied with the climate crisis that she has sunk into depression; at times she can barely function. His nine-year-old daughter, Nora, stays up at night imagining apocalyptic scenarios and writing ‘brief odes to destruction’. He’s worried that she’s ‘acting out the residue of her mother’s trauma’. But now he’s off to make it big in the Sunshine State. A pair of film producers has acquired the rights to Elsinore Lane, his first novel, and offered to bring him out to Hollywood. If he becomes a bigshot scriptwriter, he thinks, the family can start afresh in California. He pictures Nora at school with the Kardashian clan; Alison serene in a kimono, her hair in a ‘thick, dark, waist-length braid’.
Patrick is prone to self-deception. On arrival in Los Angeles, he’s reminded that he hasn’t been hired to work on the script but as a production assistant. His pay is $15 an hour. (‘Isn’t that a job for a kid?’ his wife asks.) The film isn’t what he envisioned either. The screenplay bears little resemblance to his novel, a solemn account of a young man who returns to his hometown and encounters his father’s ghost. This Elsinore Lane is a sensationalist horror mash-up populated by demons, a vampire and other ‘supernatural baddies’. The production assistants spend most of their time driving around town picking up mysterious packages for Jay and Brenda, the film’s producers. Patrick is preoccupied by his wife and daughter, and worries about their emotional distance from him. He could return home, but ‘he doesn’t want to give up a nothing that could become something glamorous for a nothing that’s certain to remain so.’
One reason he doesn’t want to leave is his growing fascination with Cassidy Carter, the film’s lead actress. A former child star, she was once so beloved that her likeness – long golden hair, a nose ‘like a beautiful, barely remembered dream’ – was moulded into a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy. Now she’s maligned as ‘crazy’, her name synonymous with a viral video in which she flings a used tampon at a paparazzo. She seems to have come straight from the 1990s, a Lindsay Lohan or a Britney Spears whose public cris de coeur became tabloid scandals. She’s less naive than Patrick, no stranger to the false promises of Hollywood, but like him desperation has led her ambition astray. She isn’t ready to give up on the film, even though she knows it’s a fiasco.
Kleeman’s first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine (2015), was a skewed conceptualist adventure. The protagonist, a woman, known only as ‘A’, obsessively contemplates the nature of ‘identity’: what, if anything, distinguishes one person from the next? Some early images: A is given a two-foot chunk of hair by her roommate, B, who has lopped off her own braid. A family of three shuffle out of their house, each wearing a long white sheet with eyeholes. Before driving off, the father spray-paints a cryptic message in block letters on the garage door. Kleeman’s short stories, collected in Intimations (2016), are with a few exceptions equally absurdist and enigmatic. Our consumerist habits are portrayed as menacing, almost pathological, behaviours – but with a faintly comic edge.
Something New under the Sun starts as a character-centred realist novel, but surreal and uncanny details filter through and nudge it towards something more eerie, less definable. Patrick’s fellow production assistants weigh in on philosophical questions, as if reciting lines from a script. (See: ‘Consciousness was not created to help us solve problems; it’s an invisible machine whose sole function is to internalise problems so that we can live with them forever.’ And: ‘Catastrophe is incomplete change … Change is violent for those who arrive to it late.’) LA turns out to be a near-future city in which wildfires ravage hillside trees and protesters block the city’s highways (we never learn what they are advocating for or against). In the wake of a severe drought, a synthetic form of water, called WAT-R, runs from firehoses and faucets – for a hefty fee – and comes in a bewildering number of varieties, including WAT-R Pure, WAT-R Energy Surge and WAT-R Diamante Dreams. ‘It’s the same as water,’ a production assistant tells Patrick, ‘just a little bit more so.’ (On the East Coast, regular water still runs from the tap.) It’s not really the same, however: a blue-tinted film is visible on its surface, and it has a taste like ‘marshmallow … or baby powder, or milk’. An idiosyncratic illness called Random-Onset Acute Dementia, or ROAD, is lulling people of all ages into a catatonic state: early symptoms include memory loss, obsessive thoughts, hallucinations, and – the only universal symptom – visions of a man in a grey suit.
Patrick absorbs all of this but remains unperturbed. ‘It’s not really an emergency,’ he thinks, ‘if you can drive around it.’ And LA is a major city: ‘Major cities just don’t get destroyed by fire.’ What consumes him is the film. He grows increasingly suspicious of Jay and Brenda’s ‘weird secretive nature’. ‘I don’t even get the sense sometimes that they expect this film to be released,’ he tells Cassidy. Patrick thinks there’s a conspiracy underway. Rather than abandon the project and return home to his family, however, he clings to the possibility that the film can be salvaged if only he can uncover the truth. Cassidy isn’t convinced he has much to gain: ‘A lot of people worked very hard to make it this rotten, and digging it all up isn’t going to shock them into making things right.’ But she agrees to help him nonetheless. As they drive around town, visiting empty parking lots attached to strip malls or drab brick buildings, the fires continue to spread and more and more people fall ill. ‘I see all this stuff,’ Patrick says, ‘but I don’t know if I’m seeing it correctly.’
Is he ‘seeing it correctly’? The novel makes it easy for the reader to become like Patrick – a little paranoid, chasing the narrative like a detective, pinning clues to a Crazy Wall and mapping out connections with pieces of string. Kleeman’s doubling motifs and contrived coincidences contribute to the atmosphere of uncertainty. In a subplot involving Kassi Keene: Kid Detective, the TV show Cassidy starred in as a teenager, events on screen mirror what’s now taking place in LA: there’s even a man in a grey suit (he’s a villain in the second series). So too do the propositions posted on a lively Kassi Keene message board, where fans debate the contents of a plot twist they believe was planned for the show’s cancelled sixth season that would point towards a ‘mega-crime’ involving the water supply. The artifice of such narrative devices seems conspicuous. Do they have something to tell us about the growing mystery? Or are we ferreting out connections where none exist?
The writer and the conspiracy theorist have a common interest – shaping messy events and contradictory behaviours into a plausible narrative: order and pattern emerge from randomness and coincidence. On some level, this is what readers want. It’s easier to solve a problem if responsibility for it can be assigned – in this case to Jay and Brenda (the US government is totally absent from the novel, which is perhaps Kleeman’s way of acknowledging its inefficacy regarding climate change in our own world). ‘Whenever someone tells you that a so-called “conspiracy theory” is too complicated, too convoluted to be true, ask them exactly how complex they feel reality to be,’ @HaydenStrange8, a Kassi Keene fan, posts on the message board.
Some of Kleeman’s tropes are familiar from earlier dystopian novels. But she also departs from convention. There is no world-transforming event that severs past from present; no survivors charged with finding a safe haven or with the daunting responsibility of rebuilding civilisation from the rubble; no prelapsarian world before the contaminating event – a place that was more ‘natural’ or more free. Here the catastrophe plays out in slow motion; over time a multitude of small events yield profound change but this shift is not always visible to those living through it. This is the world we are in now, where severe, large-scale natural disasters proliferate but tend to be geographically contained. ‘Normal is a distribution,’ one of the production assistants tells Patrick. ‘It’s impossible to tell, standing in one singular point within that distribution, what the shape that will emerge might be.’ This is what makes it possible for Patrick to carry on worrying about his career while the city around him is collapsing.
As the novel progresses, the narrative moves away from Patrick. For a while it settles on Alison, who takes advantage of her husband’s departure to LA and retreats with Nora to Earthbridge, an ecocommune in upstate New York. Earthbridge has adopted a ritualised approach to the inevitable decline of the planet: each day residents come together to mourn extinctions and distant losses – the disappearance of the Hula painted frog, the Greenland ice sheet, the thick-shelled river mussel. Someone recites a eulogy.
Kleeman is careful not to assign Alison the burden of moral gravity: to make her ‘good’ and Patrick ‘bad’. At times Alison seems cloying and sentimental. She grows ‘teary-eyed in the grocery store, looking at a can of peaches in syrup’. She spends ‘three hours trying to free a white moth that had got trapped inside the screened-in porch’. Earthbridge is an example of what happens when lifestyle supplants politics: it’s nothing more than a haven for middle-class professionals (it was started by two former HBO producers) who have the luxury of withdrawing from everyday life.
But, as the book goes on, Alison becomes more clear-eyed and her fears more warranted than Patrick allows. Despite their increasing estrangement she does what she can to support her husband. And she’s not delusional about Earthbridge: both she and Nora wrestle with their escapist guilt. It’s not perfect, Alison knows, and yet, might an imperfect something be better than a perfect nothing? ‘The alternatives were – what? – to chain herself to a bulldozer or to slink back to the suburbs, admitting that its hypocrisy was the one true hypocrisy, for ever and ever, amen?’ Much contemporary climate fiction sees resistance to the forces of capitalism and climate catastrophe as futile. Kleeman avoids this cynical trap. The model offered by Earthbridge won’t resolve the crisis, but it does keep people connected to one another and attentive to the destruction. It could become a means of change.
At its best, Something New under the Sun is a study in perception, in the limits of our ability to identify and understand changes taking place on a planetary scale. It’s also a study in perspective, in the contingency of what we perceive. There are suggestions of the Rashomon effect, but Kleeman isn’t interested in postmodern questions about relativism or the existence of truth. Some of the novel’s most exciting passages occur when she leaves the human world behind. Plants ‘leaved like clover and sprouting tiny, pale-blue flowers’ are ‘sweetly blue, the colour of aquarium gravel’. The mountains that make up the backdrop of the desert landscape ‘zag dully like an old row of vertebrae, the creature long dead, its form softened by the attrition of sun and grit and wind … Above it all, the crescent moon like a long white tooth.’ We briefly follow a beetle as it navigates ‘high-pile carpeting’; a coyote ‘[carrying] on a conversation with itself’; and a ‘worm-shaped thing’ pulling a ‘colourful polyp’ into its mouth.